Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Living the language learning dream

I’ve written recently about learning a language through your interests. By binding your life’s passions with your learning goals, something special ignites. Living the dream as a language learner is all about throwing everything into it, about living life to the max, but through the language. And this weekend, I got the chance to do just that in Oslo.

I’ve always loved music, big arena events and the excitement of live TV. Add languages to that, and it’s no surprise that Eurovision has been a fascination of mine from an early age. Some countries are closer than other when it comes to sharing this love. Fortunately, for me, one of them is Norway – pretty handy for a Norwegian learner! So, what better reason to come to Norway than a couple of tickets for Norway’s Eurovision preselection show, Melodi Grand Prix?

Slice of life

It’s no longer just about the songs, of course – nine out of ten of the entries this year were in English, not Norwegian. But being part of such a big event of national interest drags you straight into the centre of the Norwegian microcosm. You see a real slice of life, being a popular family event; surrounded by cheering, proud citizens of all ages and backgrounds gives you a lovely feel of what it’s like to be a part of Norway.

More importantly, there’s the chance to chat. There’s something about a concert that breaks down barriers, and it was easy to swap opinions and discuss favourites with people sitting nearby. In fact, it was pretty unavoidable, once your cover is blown as an utlending (foreigner)… Everybody wants to know what you think of their national songs!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018 - a major part of living my Norwegian learning dream!

Melodi Grand Prix 2018

Dip in, dip out

Unless you are moving to a country to live, it is hard to embed yourself fully in social and cultural life. But this kind of intense dip-in, dip-out relationship can be a real shot in the arm for language learners. With Norway, of course, high costs dictate that visits (for now) are generally short weekend trips like this. But it’s enough to feel part of something, to keep passion alight, and to make friends that will slowly fasten you to your target language lands.

Choose your dream – and live it

This is what living my language learning dream looks like. Now, seek out what you love about your chosen cultures, and throw yourself headfirst into it. You will construct deep and rewarding connections that will last well beyond you have reached proficiency in a language.

The weekend inspired me to reflect on my experiences as a shy learner of Norwegian. Hear my thoughts below!

Phyllis Soley and Richard West-Soley picking flowers. My Nan - my hero.

My language hero – a personal dedication

Our love of languages is so much more than words on a page. It is about the journey language facilitates for us, and the people that join us on that journey. The most special of these people become our language heroes, for one reason or another. And with this post, I mark the memory of a very, very special language hero of mine: my Nan, Phyllis Soley.

Nan was a sharp and witty lady. Although she didn’t learn languages herself, she was a dab hand at general knowledge rounds on TV quizzes. But she saw something in my love of languages that she appreciated and wanted to nurture.

Books, books and more books

She spotted early on that my fascination for language was tightly bound with a love of books. My very first language book – Teach Yourself French (the lovely old 80’s blue cover version!) – was bought with my couple of pounds of pocket money on one of our many family trips to Burnham-on-Sea. Barely even 10 years old, those early days rummaging around the tiny language section set off a journey of exploration that had no end.

When I was a bit older, I graduated from the little seaside bookshop to “the big Waterstones” in Birmingham. After the half-hour train journey from our home town, Nan would wisely ask the staff for a chair. She knew I’d need lots of time looking at the language books. Nan never complained, but sat there patiently, watching me pick out countless courses and grammars. It was a passion she was happy to indulge.

Years later, when her legs failed her, she’d still sate my hunger for books, insisting that I buy a new tome from her to me on birthdays and at Christmas. My shelves are still full of books she gifted me.

Everyday hero

In 1995, when I won a place to study languages at the University of Oxford, she was my chief cheerleader. My whole time there, she would send care parcels and pocket money to ease the bumps. To my student shame, she would even take in my laundry with Mum on my home visits. In a hundred ways, Nan typified my family’s love and encouragement for the path I’d chosen to follow in languages.

One certain language-based memory I have is particularly special. A fervent fan of the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1990s, I tended to travel back home from uni to watch it each year. Naturally, I would insist on all members of my family watching it too. Back then, of course, the songs were in the national language of each country – a bit of a linguist’s dream-come-true in those pre-Internet days, when foreign-language TV was something you needed a special satellite dish for.

In May of 1997, I travelled home for the weekend, and watched it at her house. It was just Nan and me, that night – and the UK won. She sat patiently with me through all of those songs in Norwegian, Estonian, Polish and more – and was rewarded with a win.

Nan didn’t mind watching at all – or at least, never admitted to it. She knew I loved music and knew I loved languages, and joined in the fun with me. (I’m sure it could get annoying, years later, when I’d call after the show and request the lowdown on all her favourites, in detail!)

Celebrate your everyday heroes

Language heroes don’t need to be amazing linguists themselves. They are more often than not the loving people around us, who encourage and nurture. As much as the teachers and inspirational figures that guide us, they help us to achieve our goals. Maybe it’s that person who bought your first language book, or took you on your first holiday abroad where you spoke a foreign language. It might even just be someone who kept you going with kind words. Whatever they did, we are lucky to have them in our lives, and perhaps, one day, we can do the same for others.

As a linguist, it feels fitting that I created a tribute to her through language – in fact, in her own words. Some years ago, I gave Nan a dictaphone and said she could record whatever she liked, in order to relieve some of the boredom of being wheelchair-bound. The result was a collection of recordings of Nan retelling her early life story. It’s a wonderful, precious thing that we’ll cherish forever. (And, incidentally, it permanently preserves her lovely Stourbridge accent – something of interest if you like exploring British dialects!)

We said goodbye to my wonderful Nan only very recently, which is my reason for celebrating her in this post. It’s important to find a hero like Nan for your journey. Someone who will always believe in you; someone who will be your greatest fan. She will always be with me, by my side, proud of me and egging me on. She will always be my hero.

Phyllis Soley - my everyday language hero

Phyllis Soley – my everyday language hero

We feel enthusiasm for chocolate, but it's not healthy to gorge on it!

Rationing enthusiasm for more effective language learning

Some things can be moreish. Chocolate, for example. You might think you can’t get enough of it. Your enthusiasm for the sweet stuff takes over, you race through your stash of secret supplies, and before you know it, you’re feeling bleugh. Those four Mars Bars and the family size Galaxy have done you no good.

Likewise, if you enjoy learning languages, extreme enthusiasm can be a hindrance. That sounds like a terrible thing to say – enthusiasm for learning is truly wonderful, of course. But, at the sharp end, it can be too much of a good thing.

When I’m on a learning kick, and the enthusiasm bug bites, I speed up. I want to devour words, rules, facts, figures.

And often, that means I rush ahead and skip the basics.

Dangerous enthusiasm

Now, I could pick any number of languages I’ve tried learning in the past to illustrate this. For example, the Icelandic language truly fascinates me. Historically a pretty conservative language, it’s as close to Old Norse as a modern foreign language gets. And as Norwegian learner too, there are tons of common points of interest between the two. It’s just incredibly interesting.

I spent a good year thrashing away at it some time ago. I did reasonably well, too, learning lots of grammar in particular (I am a total grammar boffin). However, I never really gained any colloquial fluency.

The reason for that is the chocolate problem. I found the language enthralling, and developed a real taste for it. But that meant I raced ahead, guzzling up the interesting stuff long before I should have. That’s a great recipe for learning without practical application.

I became the kind of linguist who could explain and conjugate complex verb paradigms in Icelandic, but couldn’t tell the time, count or say hello. Oops. Not so handy in Reykjavík.

DeFEating my nemesis

Because of this, Icelandic was always a bit of a ‘nemesis’ language for me. Every time, it would entice me a little too much, and I’d gorge on it to the point of saturation. Every time, it beat me, leaving me bursting with grammar, but with little practical application.

But I like a challenge, and if anything, Icelandic is the perfect vehicle to exercise a new, restrained enthusiasm. I picture myself down but not out, bellowing “you shall not beat me!” at it from the boxing ring floor. To that end, I’ve returned to the language recently, and thanks to a really good teacher on iTalki, am systematically filling in the gaps in the basics. We’re using a set of beginner’s resources that are available for free: Íslenska fyrir alla (Icelandic for everyone), and, for a change, I’m sticking to the plan.

Pig out – but not too often!

So, to return to chocolate (what a great idea), taking it bite by bite is advised. Little, but often. It doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes pig out – but don’t let it ruin your diet!

Notebook for note-taking

Conversation turbo-boosting with speaking bingo sheets

I’ve been having something of an iTalki renaissance lately. iTalki, if you haven’t come across it already, is a website that connects language learners with teachers all over the world for online lessons. There are few easier ways to get some face-to-face tuition from a native speaker. And it is perfect for getting some conversation practice in.

Conversation is king

If you’re working on languages beyond entry / A1 level, general conversation is an important part of any lesson. For me, the best kind of iTalki lesson is one split between general chat in the target language, and structured learning. The latter can be organised through a grammar or textbook agreed with the tutor. But conversation is vital, being a safe space to practise the end goal of language learning: real-world communication. However, it’s daunting, and one of the biggest leaps of faith (in your own ability) to make.

Although lesson prices can be very reasonable on iTalki, they do mount up. But, somehow, I felt wasn’t getting the best value out of my lessons. It was nothing to do with the actual teaching. Rather, it felt like I was lacking a bit of dynamism on my part. And it was all to do with those conversations.

This is getting awkward…

I’d arrive in the Skype chat like a blank slate, ready to be instructed; a passive but eager student. But an hour is a lot of time to fill, one-to-one. Often, gaps would open up. Teacher and student would both be stumped for what to say next.

A bit of panic would sometimes fill these gaps, as I’d mentally grasp about, frantically thinking of something to say. A counter-productive instinct kicks in; the need to say something interesting, along with the realisation that the vocabulary for it is simply not there yet. In my floundering, something pops into my head in the target language, but I realise I already said it two minutes ago. I think of something else, but it won’t come out intelligibly as I lack the vocab or structures for it. Agh!

This kind of thing, if you’ve experienced it, can be really disruptive. It can trigger that spiral of confidence-eroding self-doubt, too. I hope I’m not a boring student… Am I really good enough to be trying to converse in X/Y/Z? The teacher must be reconsidering my actual level right now…

Just wanna be loved

First things first: it doesn’t mean you’re a bad linguist. Wanting to converse interestingly and fluently is a perfectly normal goal as a human being. It is connected to our basic need to be liked – which, when it all gets too much, can tip into neurosis. Psychology Karen Horney, for example, theorises it as one of the ten ‘neurotic needs’ that can be problematic when they get out of control.

We’ve all experienced it in our day-to-day conversations in our native languages – awkward pauses and strange silences with people we want to impress.

But I needed to stop this from making my lessons less effective. I needed a crutch. What I needed was a crib sheet of vocab and phrases to use in my classes.

Speaking bingo sheets

Now, crib sheets on themselves can be rather dull. To spruce up the concept, I decided to add an element of gamification.

First, I sketch out the words and phrases I want to focus on this week in conversation. They could be items that I’ve come across in my reading, or listening to podcasts. They might also consist of vocabulary I’ve looked up to describe things I’ve been up to that week, or topical items from the news.

Then, crucially, I’ll put a tick box next to each of them. 

During the lesson, I have my speaking bingo sheet in front of me. As I converse with the teacher, I make an active effort to use my words and phrases, and tick them off as I do. Obviously, conversation is organic, and I won’t have chance to use them all. But the unused ones can go onto the next lesson’s sheet, and the process continues.

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

 

Don’t overscript it

Speaking bingo sheets shouldn’t be rigid, like a script. The aim is to support more natural speech through a set of cues. For instance, you might note down a central theme – I used ‘Remembrance Day’ in a recent Polish example (above) – and spider off some related words like ‘war’, ‘army’, ‘parade’ and so on.

In terms of phrases and language patterns, a frame or scaffold approach works best. This kind of technique is very popular for literacy in schools, but it works a treat for speaking lessons too. One example might be to have the phrases ‘I went to…’, or ‘I am going to…’ ready on your sheet to use several times with different vocab slotted in.

I also find it useful in the early stages to have a list of general opinion phrases that you can slot in anywhere. Just simple reactions like ‘great’, ‘terrible’ and so on. Also, ‘I (don’t) agree’ is a good conversation keeper-upper!

Why it works

We reinforce linguistic memories through usage, and through positive and negative associations that give them salience. To capitalise on that, you should fill your bingo sheets with favourite turns of phrase and interesting vocab you really want to ‘stick’. It sounds trivial, but if I feel proud of myself for working in a lovely, colloquial phrase like mér finnst það gott! (I like it!) into an Icelandic lesson, I’ve reinforced that vocab item with a positive emotional association.

Give them a go!

Speaking bingo sheets have really helped me to get the most out of my iTalki lessons. It’s part of being a well-prepared student (and a well-prepared teacher certainly deserves that!). Now, if I don’t use them for whatever reason, I really notice a difference.

Give them a go – and enjoy the flow!